“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” (Ps. 23:4).
I’ve always thought of the valley of the shadow of death as a metaphor, not an actual place; but apparently there’s a school of thought that locates this valley near the ancient city of Jericho. It lies on the way between Jerusalem and Jericho, the setting of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. The valley is encompassed in a deep gorge, much of it in shadow and darkness: a “den of thieves” as it were, and a dangerous place, visibly illustrated in the parable by the attack on the traveler. Our psalm translation captures the twin poles of anxiety in the verse: the deep shadow in which anything can lurk, and the prospect of deadly menace within.
The road in the valley is also traveled by shepherds with their flocks. It’s rough country, cutting through the Judean wilderness, with a steep descent from Jerusalem. Shepherds have a challenging life because the flock needs fresh pasture in the arid countryside. Shepherd and flock have to keep moving in order to stay alive. King David was a shepherd before he was a king, but he learned his statecraft in the shepherd’s school of hard knocks. In the olden days, wolves and lions were a danger, and the shepherd’s staff had less to do with keeping the flock reigned in or moving ahead, and more to do with defending life and limb from savage foes.
In John’s Gospel, the Good Shepherd is the One who defends the flock from the power of death. When Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd” (Jo. 10:11), he’s staking out resurrection territory. The shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, in order to take that life up again. “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again” (Jo. 10:18). There are thieves and bandits all around, who come to steal and kill and destroy, but the sheep listen to the voice of the shepherd and are guided to safety.
In the valley of the shadow of death, the Good Shepherd is the One who leads the flock forward into new and everlasting life. As it says in our Gospel today, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (Jo. 10:27). The green pastures and still waters of our psalm are the imperishable, unchangeable, and eternal kingdom of God. That’s the destination of the flock. Death has no power over us because no power of death can defeat the Good Shepherd. Again, as Jesus says in our reading, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (Jo. 10:28).
Still, there is the valley of the shadow of death: the anxiety of the unknown that lives in the darkness, and the deadly danger that we fear. Death is the last enemy to be destroyed, as St. Paul says in First Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:26). These are perilous and anxious times, and we all connect with the reality of the deep and deadly valley that runs through the wilderness of this world. Pandemic; war; crisis to right and left. The valley of the shadow of death cuts deep into our consciousness as an ever-present reality.
Yet, as the poet W.H. Auden wrote, we seek Jesus “in the Kingdom of Anxiety” (For the Time Being). Not because he lives there (he doesn’t), but because we live there. Or maybe, more properly, we should say he seeks us. The Good Shepherd goes in search of the sheep; his rod and his staff comfort us. “Comfort” here, in the psalm, is not (in its root) the warm and fuzzy comforter on the bedspread, but the fortifying power of a strong defender. Jesus is the One who stands with us in the valley; the One who dispels the darkness of the shadow and leads us into the full light of day.
Today, at the Church of the Good Shepherd, we celebrate baptism, confirmation, and reception, welcoming people into a new relationship with God in this community of faith. As Jesus’ disciples, our destination as we journey through the valley of the shadow of death is new and everlasting life with God. In baptism, we begin that journey to new life. In confirmation and reception, we re-affirm our baptismal vows and continue the journey, going deeper in relationship with God. We receive grace to help through the laying on of hands, and the prayer of the congregation. Every member of the church present today has the opportunity to join in that same re-affirmation. For each of us, the journey takes us through many deep valleys, but Jesus is present with us every step of the way.